Schwester, Seour, Eonni, Jiejie, and Other Ways I Can Say “Sister”

My German textbook.

I love the English language.  I was an early English talker, an average English reader, and have made writing in English my profession.  Sometimes, I imagine English loves me back.  Even if it doesn’t, I can usually coax it to stand up on its hind legs and help me say whatever I want.

No matter how much I love it, English is only one language.  I don’t know how many other languages there are in this world – maybe no one knows for certain.  It’s debatable and ill-defined.  At any rate, there are hundreds.  Maybe I’m greedy and faithless but it makes me sad to have full use of only one of them.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to learn more.

Just about every English-speaking Canadian reaches adulthood with some ability in French.  Our country has two official languages.  Like most of my comrades, I sat through daily French classes in public school.  On the east coast of Canada, most of my teachers were Francophones – Acadians with an accent different from the one in Quebec and definitely different from the Continental chit-chat on the cassette tapes that came with our textbooks.  When my parents moved us back to western Canada, I was taught French by an Anglophone who spoke like a computer simulation of a human being talking French.  Whatever their quirks, I’m glad for those lessons.  They were not a waste of time.  The proof is that I can hold my own in my sons’ elementary school French immersion classes – for now.

In university, I needed credit in a language other than English in order to qualify for my degree.  I was tired of speaking badly only in a Romance language so I enrolled in German.  The vocabulary was a blast.  German pronunciation was fun and I found myself reading it aloud even without comprehension simply because the sound of it made me so happy.  The grammar, however, was cruel.  I took my introductory course and was surprised to receive a letter from the German department offering me a spot in their honours programme.  It was sweet but the fact was (and is) that the German phrase I used most often was, “Wiederholen Sie das, bitte?”  It means, “Can you repeat that please?”  I used it to stall conversations while I slowly and painfully tried to decode the language.

I discovered Asian languages outside of school when my kids became fascinated with east Asian pop culture.  Currently, most of the television we watch comes from Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan.  I know about twenty words in Japanese, slightly fewer than that in Mandarin Chinese, and about 90 words in Korean.  But my Asian vocabularies are not very useful in normal, daily conversation.  The phrases I know tend to be the kind of thing someone might shout in dramatic dialogue – things like, “How can this be?” or, “There’s no time!” or, “Do you want to die?” or, for really special occasions, “Don’t go!  I’m sorry!  I love you!  Come back!”  Yes, my conversations with the nice Korean guys who own my favourite gas station have to be kept short or things might get a bit melodramatic.

Tallied up, that’s 4+ languages attempted and only one mastered.  It’s not an impressive record.  But I can’t quit now.  This summer, I’ve started seeking out a new second language.  It’s different again from anything I’ve ever studied.  For once, pronunciation isn’t a concern.  This language is not in my mouth.  It’s in my hands.  I need to learn American Sign Language.

A family member – the wife of one of my brothers – is losing her hearing.  It’s her story and I won’t try to tell it for her.  She’s a writer and can share it without any help from me.  My sister-in-law is a smart, pragmatic, optimistic person – a problem solver – and I’m sure she’ll figure out how to cope in a world where not enough people know how to talk directly to her.  She’s losing her hearing, not her speech so she’ll remain able to tell us whatever she wants.  No doubt, the person doing the heaviest lifting with my sister-in-law’s new communication strategies will always be her.  But maybe I can help in my tiny way.  And maybe language study will be different for me this time.  It will come with an urgency, a purpose, and a focus it’s never had before.  I’m not learning for grades or entertainment or curiosity or even in the interest of fostering Canadian national unity.  Instead, I’m learning in order to stay connected to someone I love.  It’s a language study aid I’ve never tried before.  It’s more compelling than any of the  impressive cultural, political, commercial, or neurological arguments that can be made for studying a new language.

Whatever it is, “Sister” is one of the first signs I’ve learned.

Confessions of a Slow Reader

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, "What?"

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, “What?”

I am a slow reader – painfully, tediously slow.  It’s been true since I was in grade two and it’s still true today.  Whether I’m reading aloud or not, I can’t move through a book any faster than the speed of speech – not nearly quickly enough.

If you’re one of the people who’s surprised to learn this about me, thank you.  Most people assume writers are also accomplished readers.  I am not.  I have read and understood a lot of very good books.  But it’s taken me a long time.

Why am I talking about it now?  I just read book blogger Laura Frey’s Can-Lit confessions – a list of hard truths about her experience with our country’s literary canon.  She admitted to not liking, not reading, and being slow to hear about a few of the authors and books considered Canadian classics.  I enjoyed her candor so much I made my own confession about getting through my entire adolescence without reading a single word written by Farley Mowat (as proof of my ignorance, I think I even misspelled his name in my comment).

And then I started considering the short-comings in my own career as a reader.

Early elementary school – the learn-to-read years — was a hard time for me.   In grade one, the fluid left behind my eardrums by a streak of bad ear infections made me mostly deaf.  For about a year, nobody noticed.  That’s how it is with hearing loss.  No one’s to blame.  The loss meant I spent my time at school listening to the dull tides of my pulse moving through all that fluid – fwum, fwum, fwum.  I didn’t realize there was anything more to hear and I thought school was just really boring.  It seemed like we sat in our desks or on the carpet doing nothing at all.

In the second grade, I had surgery, the deafening fluid drained away, and I came back to the land of the hearing to find I’d been bumped from my place in the reading group meant for the best readers in our class.  After all the loud reprimands I remembered little deaf-me getting for not paying attention and not following directions, I figured I deserved the demotion and slunk away with my mediocrity.

Indignant current-me isn’t so sure I deserved it.  I have always understood and retained what I read.  But I will concede this: if we were being ranked based on our reading speed alone, mediocre was a generous assessment of my skills.  Grade two is when I remember Her coming.  She’s this voice in my head – an adult woman’s voice, I don’t know whose – that spoke every word I saw with my eyes.  I couldn’t read any faster than she could talk.  I still can’t.

After grade two, we moved to a new school where my teacher was just as interested in our writing as our reading skills.  She told me I was talented and I became her unofficial language arts protégé – the student invited to the front of the class to read creative writing out loud, at the glorious pace of speech.  No one ever mentioned my reading speed again.  It was my secret to keep.

And I did keep it.  I never cheated but I did learn how to read enough of a book to be able to sound informed about it and no more.  During my Arts degree, I learned how to wade through enough of the material on a course reading list to still get an A.  It was risky and stressful but I simply could not complete all the “required” readings.  There wasn’t time for someone moving at my pace to finish it.

Thanks to the years and years I spent pinned under nursing babies, forced to sit down and hold still and listen to Her, I have ended up fairly well-read.  It was another unexpected irony of motherhood – the way the babies who were supposed to stifle and suppress me ended up being what made it possible for me to become what I wanted all along.  Eventually, I did read everything on the lists from my university classes.  I’ve read hundreds of pounds of thick, daunting prose, poetry, and non-fiction.  And I’ve loved it.

Now that I’ve finished my reading lists — now that the Bachelor of Arts degree hanging in my kitchen doesn’t seem so much like a sham anymore — I can freely admit to anyone that I’m not what people might think I am.  I am a working writer but I am not what my early elementary school teachers considered a gifted reader.  I am not incorrigibly bookish.  I’m still poking my way through the literary landscape, warning my friends I’ll just drag their book clubs down with my sluggish ways.  But I’m working in this field anyway, in spite of my nature.  I’m reading and writing anyway. Maybe it’s true for anyone who tries to write as a vocation.  We’ve probably all got something deep-seated and shame-laden that we had to overcome before we could do this.

I know, it reads like a sports cliche.  But that’s the thing about cliches — they’re tired because they’re usually true.